A year ago, Kanye West dropped his debut and made people believe that in 2004, humility would be the new arrogance in hip-hop. But you can never trust the kid on the outside looking in—as soon as they let him hang with the in crowd, he’s in the club doing the same ol’ two-step. No surprise, then, that he’s aiding and abetting on Purple Haze, Cam’ron’s fourth and best album—Cam is nothing if not the hip-hop pied piper, a mind manipulator of stratospheric proportions. Kanye produces “Down & Out,” a majestic twist on “Strung Out,” the mournful William Bell/Mavis Staples duet, but it’s his eager hook that shows his arriviste seams—”Our girls is the models/They coochies the juiciest.”
Ugh. Just listen to the rest of the song, Kanye, and learn that it’s possible to be brash without being brusque (at least, sometimes): “Look at mami/Eyes blue/Five-two/I approached her/Hi, boo/How you?/Pony-skin Louis?/Oh you fly, too/You a stewardess?/ Good, ma, I fly too.” It’s all peacocking bravado, from the male commiseration to the keen fashion eye to the repetition that stands in for a rhyme. Like most of Cam’s material, its dominant quality is its smugness, its immunity to dissent. Confidence is nothing new in rap, but Cam’s brand is unique—hardheaded, rife with entitlement, casually flamboyant.
And oh, can he ever rap. Intricacy and economy rarely cohabitate in a rapper’s flow, but Cam is a model of both, packing an obscene number of rhyming syllables into each line, and sustaining the effect for lengthy runs. Sometimes he rhymes two-syllable phrases ad nauseam (the NWA rip “Dopeman”), sometimes he flirts with three separate rhyme schemes in just a few bars (“Down & Out”). Sometimes, he seems to be issuing a dare—you rhyme a sentence as long as “You know I’m in the building, mister/with the Olsen twins or the Hilton sisters.”
These tone poems—the surety of the cadence, the knowledge that no rhyme will ever sound incomplete—are hypnotic and exhilarating. And though gibberish is part of his stylistic arsenal—especially on the phalanx of non sequiturs that is “Get ‘Em Girls,” one of last year’s most arresting, triumphant songs—Cam’s still interested in narrative. To wit, from “Bubble Music”: “Cops come blocking the ave./I put the glock in the stash/ Slabs and tops in the trash/Still stop and I laugh/Ma, get them rocks in ya ass/The rest, twat and your bag/Dag, hop in a cab.”
The avant-garde need not be moral. This is next-gen gangster rap—unreconstructed in content, but vivid and full of flair and complexity. Sometimes the most uncompromising art can come from the most reprehensible circumstances (and few rappers attempt to blur their hustles more assiduously than Cam does, boasting “I push weight, and I push tapes” and shouting out enough third-tier cities in Ohio to qualify him as a voting consultant).
But Cam’s no more a disease than he is a symptom. Even the least musically ambitious cuts—”Harlem Streets,” which rides the “Hill Street Blues” theme into the ground, and “More Reasons,” which does the same to Earth, Wind & Fire—serve a purpose, capturing a melancholy that cuts Cam’s bravado. Just as the rest of the album bombastically evokes the scope of Cam’s charm, talent, and ego, their monochromatic affect suggests the intractability of his surroundings.
“Get Down” is Cam’s “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem),” his apologia: “Pops gone/ Shit tragical/Moms on mission/My house is where the addicts chill/I’m like a teacher/I need me a sabbatical/It’s not irrational/I grew up radical.” Cam’ron is a slave to many things—a slave to his surroundings, to other people’s expectations, to the limitations of genre. But mostly, he’s a slave to the rhyme—”I wish my homie could watch me/live happy days like Joanie and Chachie/I stay lonely and cocky”—and that might be the one way out.